Census' handling of report challenged by Sarbanes

May 29, 1992|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes yesterday challenged the director of the Census Bureau to explain delay and apparent dissembling in issuing a politically embarrassing statistical analysis showing a dramatic increase in full-time low-income workers during the Reagan-Bush years.

Census Bureau statistician Jack McNeil, the report's author, said the analysis was held for five months during disputes with the organization's press office over how it should be presented.

The report was finally issued earlier this month without any press summary of its contents after Mr. McNeil rejected an initial proposal from the publicity department suggesting that the report's key finding was a connection between earnings and education rather than the increase in low earnings.

Mr. McNeil insisted that the thrust of his analysis of figures covering the period 1964 to 1990 was a striking increase during the 1980s in the number of workers earning low pay from full-time year-round jobs.

He found 18 percent, or 14.4 million, of full-time workers were in low-paying jobs in 1990, a marked increase on the 12.1 percent of 1979. Low pay was defined as earnings of less than $12,195 in 1990, with comparable inflation-adjusted amounts applied to earlier years.

In an election year when the widening gap between rich and poor has become a major issue, the confirmation of declining earnings at the low end of the pay scale could be embarrassing to the administration.

"Obviously, the information people didn't like that," Mr. McNeil said. "They wanted a different kind of story in their press release. They wanted to put something in the press release that really didn't reflect the main finding of the report."

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities produced its own analysis of Mr. McNeil's figures. The center's director, Robert Greenstein, said: "Here, as we are getting into a very important debate over problems of the cities and urban poverty, . . . is extremely important information that is at the heart of the problem. The idea it wasn't new and didn't warrant a press release is ludicrous."

Mr. Sarbanes, in letters to Census Bureau Director Barbara E. Bryant and Secretary of Commerce Barbara Hackman Franklin, said, "Actions which raise even the slightest intimation of political intervention or manipulation of the statistical system are likely to undermine public trust and confidence in public statistics, and to diminish the worthy efforts under way to improve the statistical system."

In his letters, Mr. Sarbanes also raised reports of Commerce Department regulations limiting press access to officials. The Maryland Democrat heads the Joint Economic Committee, which instituted monthly hearings on unemployment statistics after the Nixon administration attempted to suppress politically unfavorable statistics.

John J. Connolly, the department's assistant director for communications, denied it was policy to restrict journalists' access to officials and said that, despite differences over the press release's wording, Mr. McNeil's report was not edited.

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